Top 100 Movie Review: No. 059 – Dances with Wolves (1990)

Ranked 059 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched April 2020.

Cast: Kevin Costner (Lt. John J. Dunbar/Dances With Wolves), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Chief Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Jimmy Herman (Stone Calf), Nathan Lee (Smiles A Lot)
Director:  Kevin Costner
My rating: 9.0 / 10

Synopsis
In 1863, Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) has been wounded in battle and is waiting for a field amputation of his leg. However Dunbar decides death in battle is better than amputation, he takes a horse and rides up to and along the Confederate lines waiting for them to shoot him. Despite numerous pot shots, the Confederates fail to hit him, and while they are distracted, the Union Army successfully attacks the line. Dunbar survives, receives a citation for bravery, and then a promise to safe his leg dues to his bravery. After recovering is he awarded the horse he rode at the Confederate lines (named Cisco) and given a choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier, so he can see it before it disappears.

Dunbar is transferred to Fort Hays, a large fort presided over by Major Fambrough, an unhinged officer who despises Dunbar’s enthusiasm. He agrees to post him to the furthest outpost they have, Fort Sedgwick, and kills himself shortly afterwards. Dunbar travels with Timmons, a mule wagon provisioner. They arrive to find the fort deserted. Despite the threat of nearby native tribes, Dunbar elects to stay and man the post himself.

Timmons is killed by Pawnee people on the journey back to Ft. Hays. His death, together with that of the major who had sent them there, prevents other soldiers from knowing of Dunbar’s assignment, and no other soldiers arrive to reinforce the post.

Dunbar slowly rebuilds the fort while committing his thoughts to a journal which we hear. Dunbar initially encounters his Sioux neighbours when they attempt to steal his horse Cisco but his smart horse keeps returning back to Dunbar. Deciding that being a target is a poor prospect, Dunbar decides to seek out the Sioux camp and attempt dialogue. On his way, he comes across Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), the White adopted daughter of the tribe’s medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), who is ritually mutilating herself while mourning for her husband. Dunbar brings her back to the Sioux to recover, and some of the tribe begin to respect him.

Eventually, Dunbar establishes a rapport with Kicking Bird, the warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) and the youth Smiles A Lot (Nathan Lee), and they start visiting each other’s camps. The language barrier frustrates them, and recovered Stands With A Fist is enlisted to act as an interpreter, although with difficulty. She only remembers English from her early childhood before the rest of her family was killed during a Pawnee raid.

Dunbar discovers that the stories he had heard about the tribe were untrue, and he develops a growing respect and appreciation for their lifestyle and culture. Learning their language, he is accepted as an honoured guest by the Sioux after he tells them of a migrating herd of buffalo which Sioux had been waiting a long time to return and Dunbar participates in the hunt.

When at Fort Sedgewick, Dunbar also befriends a wolf he dubs “Two Socks” for its white forepaws. Observing Dunbar and Two Socks chasing each other, the Sioux give him the name “Dances With Wolves.” During this time, Dunbar also forges a romantic relationship with Stands With A Fist and helps defend the village from an attack by the rival Pawnee tribe. Dunbar eventually wins Kicking Bird’s approval to marry Stands With A Fist and abandons Fort Sedgwick.

Because of the growing Pawnee and White threat, Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) decides to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to accompany them but must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgwick as he realises that it would provide the army with the means to find the tribe. When he arrives he finds the fort reoccupied by the U.S. Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and arresting Dunbar as a traitor.

Two officers interrogate him, but Dunbar cannot prove his story, as a corporal has found his diary and kept it for himself. Having refused to serve as an interpreter to the tribes, Dunbar is charged with desertion and transported back east as a prisoner. Soldiers of the escort shoot Two Socks when the wolf attempts to follow Dunbar, despite Dunbar’s attempts to intervene.

Eventually, the Sioux track the convoy, killing the soldiers, and free Dunbar. They assert that they do not see him as a White man, but as a Sioux warrior called Dances With Wolves. At the winter camp, Dunbar decides to leave with Stands With A Fist because his continuing presence would endanger the tribe. As they leave, Smiles A Lot returns the diary, which he recovered during Dunbar’s liberation, and Wind In His Hair shouts to Dunbar, reminding him that he is Dunbar’s friend, a contrast to their original meeting where he shouted at Dunbar in hostility.

U.S. troops are seen searching the mountains, but are unable to locate them, while a lone wolf howls in the distance. An epilogue states that thirteen years later the last remnants of the free Sioux were subjugated to the USA government, ending the conquest of the Western Frontier states and the livelihoods of the tribes on the plains.

Note: The above is based on original version of the movie which I originally watched.  I also watched the four hour version which provides a lot more context into what happens and the slow friendships that develop.

What’s to Like
The epic landscape, the music, the acting, the insights into the native Americans life (in a positive way for once).

What’s not to Like
Nothing.

Thoughts
First I’d strongly recommend watching the four hour extended cut of this movie.  The slow built of friendship and trust between very different cultures but finding common ground in family and protecting those who are important to you.  The Dunbar character in particular learns to appreciate living closer to nature finally finding his true self and how the native Americans aren’t a savage culture.

Dunbar’s narration increasingly gets concerns about the future of the Sioux people as he knows the ‘white people’ are coming in numbers and he knows how they fight having been in the American Civil War.  You can’t help but getting concerned yourself as you know how history plays out and every time you see the children playing or the tribe hunting or celebrating you know it will end in tears.

This is a powerful movie, very few if any before this one covered the perspective of Native Americans in such a positive way and the Director and star Kevin Costner deserves a lot of credit for taking on such a huge and risky undertaking with this movie.  This movie received 12 Academy Award nominations and winning 7 which was well deserved but hard to believe no one in the movie won an acting award.

Another great movie.  Highly recommend.      

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – winner
  • Best Director (Kevin Costner) – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Michael Blake) – winner
  • Best Cinematography (Dean Semler) – winner
  • Best Sound – winner
  • Best Film Editing – winner
  • Best Music, Original Score – winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Kevin Costner) – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Graham Greene) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mary McDonnell) – nominee
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries in this amazing world. https://nathanburgessinsights.com/travel/
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